Correlation Between Candy and Crime Shows Sloppy Research

Oct. 15, 2009
Good research goes bad in connecting daily candy consumption to violence.

As Food Processing’s News and Trends Editor, I’m besieged with press releases touting studies on food, nutrition and consumer behavior. When a study is announced, I first check to see how many people were involved and the duration of the study. Was it conducted on 1,000 people for 10 years (let’s take a look) or 10 people for three days (a prime candidate for the round file)?

So when I read that researchers from Cardiff University in Wales studied 17,500 participants born in 1970 for four decades on their candy consumption, and the study was published in the prestigious British Journal of Psychiatry in October, naturally I checked it out.

Paid for by Britain’s Economic and Social Research Council, the study is the first to look at the longterm effects of childhood diet on adult violence.

Researchers found that feeding your 10-year-old child candy every day, rather than as an occasional treat, could turn Dick or Jane into a violent criminal.

“The link between confectionary consumption and violence” remained after controlling for variables such as parenting skills and social and economic backgrounds, reports the Associated Press.

This conclusion was reached because 69 percent of the participants who had committed violence by the age of 34 had eaten sweets or chocolate nearly every day during childhood. Perhaps I’m dense, but didn’t these same children also drink water or milk every day? Could one of those be the actual culprit leading innocent children into a life of violent crime.

“Giving children sweets and chocolate regularly may stop them from learning how to wait to obtain something they want,” lead researcher Simon Moore said in a statement. “Not being able to defer gratification may push them towards more impulsive behavior, which is strongly associated with delinquency.”

Julian Hunt, director of communications at the Food and Drink Federation fired back. “This is either utter nonsense or a very bad April Fool's Day joke! Antisocial behavior stems from deep-rooted social and environmental factors such as poor parenting and a deprived upbringing, and is not linked to whether or not you ate sweeties as a kid.”

Susan Whiteside, vice president of communications at our Washington-based National Confectioners Assn., sent me to her blog. “As my darling husband always says to me when I start jumping to conclusions about any number of issues, ‘Remember – correlation does not equal causation.’ ”

Whiteside points out the research “is intended to illustrate that an overly permissive parenting style may create a population of adults with limited experience in delaying gratification, leading to impulsive behavior and violence. Candy just happened to be the control factor used in this study, but it could have been staying up late, buying too many new toys, playing excessive video games or even reading in bed after lights out.”

But, she adds, there are some important take-away messages here. “As adults, we know there is a time and a place for eating candy. Confectionery is a treat – it’s not meant to take the place of breakfast, lunch or dinner, and it will not replace a balanced diet consisting of lean protein, low-fat dairy, whole grains and fruits and vegetables. That said, if we eat a diet rich in a variety of foods, and we include plenty of activity in our lives, we could enjoy candy and other sweets in moderation. In fact, sweetness in our diets makes life more pleasurable. Therefore, parents must help their children understand that candy consumption is not a reward. We should not bribe our children with candy. We should teach them how to include some of their favorite foods as part of an overall healthy, active lifestyle.”

The researchers admit they need to do more research to confirm any link. “This is an incredibly complex area,” said Moore, adding, “It’s not fair to blame it on the candy.”

OK, then spare us your hair-brained conclusions. As a daily confectionery afficionado from childhood to now, I haven’t murdered anyone yet. Then again, I haven’t met the researchers. Incidentally, some 42 percent of the participants who ate sweets daily did not turn out to be violent as adults either.

I’m not suggesting you stuff your 10-year-old’s mouth every day with tons of candy (or brussels sprouts for that matter). Improving children’s diets is an important priority for the food industry, particularly in view of the child obesity problem in the U.S. and other developed countries. A nutritious diet, portion size and exercise all play a part in weight control and optimal performance in school, along with a healthy dose of affection. I’d bet my daily candy that the latter is more important than a sweet treat every day in preventing aggressive behavior. So there!

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